Pop Overload: The Sexy Sex Images About Sex Make That Money

Nicki Minaj, the early days when she was just a crazy-skilled MC from Queens.

Last week I had an interesting conversation with some friends about Nicki Minaj. Without getting too much into the details of the conversation, some people thought her bubble gum Barbie hyper-feminized pop star thing was sort of fascinating (I include myself in that camp), while others thought her look just played into the same old same old in terms of the hyper-sexualization of women. Outside of this conversation, I’ve heard a lot of women discuss being disappointed, disenchanted, and angry about not seeing themselves represented visually in pop culture, music specifically. This is something I’ve always felt was curious, not because it shouldn’t be so, but because I’m not sure where that expectation comes from.

Pop media is a world of extreme money and, given the fact that as women we’re still facing massive wage discrepancies as well as far less representation in terms of who becomes a corporate executive, it’s pretty safe to assume that it’s a world run by men–and by “men” I mean a specific sort of dominant culture style man who loves tropes and archetypes, not your enjoyable boyfriend, friend, or husband, not the guy who got really into that gender studies class he took in college. It’s a world built by men who love the male gaze and who use it to make a lot of money. I imagine every meeting in every office involved in the production of popular media as a scene from American Psycho, the movie about Christian Bale’s true nature.

So, while it’s not that I don’t think it’s worth complaining about–nor that I take an “oh well, that’s it” approach–I present this devil’s advocate position: why are we expecting anything other than sexist, narrow representations from women involved in pop culture when they’re not the ones producing the culture in the first place?

Breaking news! Pop music loves B.J. allusions!

So women probably aren’t the ones making those images happen.

Or maybe they are and if so, WHOA. UNEXPECTED.

Pop Culture Broke Britney.

But generally, I’d say probably not.

What’s even more interesting to me is how often the ire of my female compatriots is directed at the female stars themselves. Which brings me to my first point with regard to expectations: how much control do we think female pop stars making a shit ton of money really have over their image? What do those images even look like and why are we complaining about the product instead of the producer? Isn’t that like blaming the worker for the terrible business practices of their employer?

Images, yes. Well, let’s start with one of the biggest stars of all time. BEYONCE. Because frankly, Britney still makes me sad to think about.

Beyonce is interesting with her whole “Girls run the world/women are the power behind powerful men” schtick. Somehow she’s managed to garner feminist respect to a certain extent while chicks like Nicki Minaj take a beating. Why? I’ve heard women say that they feel like Beyonce has more control over her image, that she’s classy, that she’s a feminist. Maybe she is feminist, I don’t know. But her image isn’t particularly less male gaze-y than any other female pop star’s, it’s just more normative than Nicki’s, for instance. Let me be clear: I like Beyonce. I mean, I don’t know her personally, but her music is catchy and her style–when she’s left to her own devices–is pretty kick ass. She also, for whatever reason, just seems like a nice person even though she bought her newborn a solid gold rocking horse, which is pretty gross.

Here she is hanging out being adorable and stylish with Jay-Z, who now writes songs about drinking Rose and going to bed at a reasonable time and then tries to recover with raps about being super hard core. It’s cool, man! Sleep is good for you.

Now here she is for People:

Tits out, come hither look engaged, skin shown, back arched. Remind you of anything? Oh that’s right… SHE WANTS TO HAVE SEX RIGHT NOW THAT’S ALL SHE WANTS TO DO.

And let’s just take a minute to talk about the bizarre scenario that is the video for Upgrade U. This is another song that’s along the same lines of “women secretly run the world, it’s cool, let dudes keep thinking they’re powerful because we know the truth.” I don’t know about you, but if I’m going to run the world, I’d rather not do it by proxy. I’d kind of like to just go ahead and make sure people know it’s me. No matter. Have you all seen this video? Here. Watch it.

So when she’s playing the dude part, she looks like this:

Beyonce playing the dude part somehow equals what I look like when I’m just watching TV.

Hair back, jeans, button up shirt, sneer, sunglasses, physically taking up space to communicate power. And yet, when she starts in with her “ran by the man, but the women keep the tempo…still play my part but I’ll let you play the lead role” thing this happens:

Nothing says “I secretly run the world” like writhing in water on the floor in a jewel-encrusted corset or climbing into a trunk. I mean, a CORSET?? Really? I don’t even need to critique that. It’s just all right there. And is she about to get chainsaw murdered? What is she doing with that trunk? Is she showing the car off like those bikini babes at car shows? Something’s not right. I’m pretty sure if I ran the world, or the world’s tempo or whatever, I would wear mostly weaponry and head-to-toe armor, or, if I were a benevolent ruler, natural fabrics. Definitely NOT booty shorts, or a corset. I just don’t think a lot cleavage and butt cheek communicates BOW DOWN.

And given Beyonce’s personal aesthetic style, I wonder how she would have dressed herself if men hadn’t run the video. Or if women ran her record label, styled her, and ran the video. The look she’s given is pretty classically male gaze, almost to a formulaic extreme, but short of being absurdist.

Which is why I actually LIKE what happens with Nicki Minaj.

Bananas.

I don’t know if it’s the Queens-born MC past or what, but for some reason Nicki gets a lot of flack for her hyper-feminized look. But why? Her look is SORT of hyper-feminized, but it’s so deeply odd that it undermines the male gaze by being grotesque (and I mean the good kind of grotesque). She might put her tits out, but she does NOT look like she would actually have sex with you or anyone else. She looks like she might laser gun you.

She’s just as scantily clad as Beyonce, but she’s much less normative, which undermines everything–Barbie-pink mixed with a sneer and barbed wire becomes almost ironic. And she’s not writhing on any floor all wet with water, which HELLO. Beyond that, you’d have to get through that barbed wire to even touch her. Good luck.

The other thing that’s interesting about Nicki is that her lyrics don’t speak to a male audience (versus Beyonce convincing a guy that she’s right for him because they’re equals, but don’t worry it will be their little secret). I’m not really sure who they speak to, but she’s not doing the whole coquettish thing Beyonce does. Most of the time she’s talking about how awesome she is or about how she’s going to destroy this or that person in a variety of really strange ways. Many times she’s going to destroy women who have been mean to her or men who think they’re better than her. RESPECT.

The rest of the time, she’s going around looking like this as her public image:

In her interview for Black Book, she even said:

When I started making those weird voices, a lot of people told me how whack it was. ‘What the fuck are you doing?’ they’d say. ‘Why do you sound like that? That doesn’t sound sexy to me.’ And then I started saying, Oh, that’s not sexy to you? Good. I’m going to do it more. Maybe I don’t want to be sexy to you today.

And in reference to Lady GaGa comparisons:

We both do the awkward, non-pretty thing. What we’re saying—what I’m saying, anyway—is that it’s okay to be weird. And maybe your weird is my normal. 

And then she wore this, which shows zero skin:

AWESOME.

IBC fellow Carrie Leilam Love has said that she thinks it’s interesting that when white women talk about people like Nicki or Beyonce, the whole conversation is about female empowerment and feminism, whereas when she talks about the same people with a group of women of color, the conversation is mostly about representations of race and sexuality. I mention this because I think it’s an important point to bear in mind, though one I, as a white woman, don’t feel specifically qualified to delve into, though I know what she means. I will say that I think part of the disconnect for some white women, even me, is that while there are certainly clearly issues of race and sexuality at play, somehow the images still seem more empowered than what often happens with white female pop stars of the same level.

What I mean is that while women of color are often hyper-HYPER-sexualized  in their images, women like Britney Spears, Christina (what is it, Xstina now or something), and Katy Perry (who’s music could possibly be the worst music of all time) are simultaneously infantilized AND hyper-sexulized. Meaning, they’re sexy submissive little girls who just want to do what the man wants.

Take the image designed for Katy Perry, who unlike Beyonce and Nicki, I think is a waste of musical space:

Oop! I make a B.J. face while blowing bubbles!

I WUV wolly pops!

Wow. Racist AND sexist! “Asian women are submissive, right? Yeah, great, let’s go ahead and make Katy dress like a sexy Asian stereotype.” Cha-CHING!!

 And while Nicki might be scantily clad, her body language is closed and not sexy, unlike how Katy is so often portrayed as ready, willing, and almost there:

Katy’s about to climax without you. You better get there fast.

Either way, all of the images designed for all of these women speaks to a larger issue: they are not the mistresses of the visual messages they put out into the entertainment ether. Nicki actually seems the most in control of her crazy look, but even so, would she be worried about making sure she’s not sexy if Beyonce’s girls ran the world? Probably not. Maybe Nicki would still be wearing hoodies while she rapped about bizarre forms of personal destruction. Maybe Beyonce would be wearing creative suits or flowy garments like she does in real life.

The skin game is part of the money game and that’s what’s driving representations of women in pop culture. If you want to change the game and see representations of yourself, then figure out how to change the profit margins, is what I think. I’m not disappointed in Nicki or Beyonce or Katy Perry–well, I had no expectations of Katy Perry, that musical equivalent of a lobotomy. They’re in a world run by deeply rooted sexism that’s being perpetuated by profit margins, that’s the world of dominant culture.  It doesn’t care about you, or ethics, or sexism, or feminism, or people. It does what it does to perpetuate itself for as long as it can with the easiest, lowest common denominator. Like a corporation. And it remakes the same tired images over and over again. The only thing that changes with the decades is the fashion.  How do you shift dominant culture? You can’t separate it from Capitalism– it eats people up and spits them out all in the pursuit of itself.  Spend your money strategically. Make it worth its while to shift.

Less profitable female musicians look like this, but wouldn’t it be great if they were setting the profits bar?

Yamantaka Sonic Titan being distinctly not male gaze-y.

Yamantaka Sonic Titan take 2.

Matana Roberts.

Matana take 2.

My hero Janelle Monae.

In conclusion, just for fun, here’s what I’m going to do and what I think would be interesting for my fellow frustrated women to do: Next time you see a female pop star and you hate how her image is reinforcing sexism, instead of saying “why is SHE doing that.. I’m frustrated with HER.. I wish SHE would…” try saying “why is the INDUSTRY doing that… I’m frustrated with the SYSTEM… I wish the MARKET would…”

Simple language tweaks go a long way to shedding light on the real problem and the real problem is not Nicki or Beyonce or Katy the human being. The real problem, what we’re sick of, is Nicki or Beyonce or Katy the product. Products are made, not born. And if you’re confused about whether or not a pop star is a product and reflection of a system, or an autonomous decision-making human being, look at pictures of how she represented herself before she entered the system. Or look at pictures of her when she’s off duty. It’s likely going to be a pretty stark difference. Systems can make or break a person. Sometimes they do both.

And that’s my opinion for the week. Have a great weekend everyone!

About Michael von Braithwaite

Does it look like I'd wear it on a boat, at an eccentric person's estate or accompanied by a peacock on a chain? Yeah, I'll probably buy that.

9 comments

  1. cathy

    What, no comments? I will be the first, then. I like Katy Perry. I know her songs are ridiculous, but they’re so damn catchy.

  2. I really hate Nicki Minaj’s singing, but I think she has amazing flow. I don’t mind the voices, I mind being weird just to be weird. I need for her to have a better reason for their use. But I really appreciate that this article sheds light on the fact that she’s a savvy and in charge business woman. However, it is sad that on the path to her rise to fame, they’ve downplayed the fact that she’s queer, she’s left her butchy persona and the style of makeup (and cosmetic surgery she’s elected for) has been very white-washed – which are the real reasons I have a hard time with her. Nonetheless, I respect hard work and creativity – always.

  3. Jonanna

    I’m curious if we also forgive people like Nicki Minaj more if we also happen to like her aesthetically and performance-wise. For instance, I LOVE almost all of her work except for “Starships,” and I therefore am more sympathetic, perhaps, to some of her “selling out” of her queerdom and her over-sexualizing herself (as some people see it.
    Also, I dunno, a woman saying that she’ll put a dick in your face in a pop song signifies pretty queer to me, so I’m not sold on her selling out at all.
    This is interesting.

  4. I find this endlessly fascinating- this whole discussion. When the product is sexy- it has power, period. Male female queer etc. sexual expression is powerful. So when female artists show blow job face or orgasm face- they are showing power. It may be hetro normative ?( but I know queer girls who love Katie Perry in all her bubble gum goodness), any way– it is power. Jaws drop, panties get wet, dicks get hard and people spend their money on it. The pop stars laugh all the way to the bank. Growing up thinking I needed to be modest to be taken seriously or be successful was foolish. Lipstick high heels and artifice win every time. Now what you do with the power you have- i.e. message in the music…. that seems to be a whole other conversation.

  5. i think katy and nicki are products, but not beyonce, she is the persona behind her image and her music and how she performs, she was created to be a star, she was born to be one

  6. Really enjoyed this article, Michael. It is a fascinating topic.

    Now re: the infantilization of white women. Black and brown women are rarely (if ever) infantilized because we are never seen as “pure” or “innocent” or “virginal.” We’re not the pretty princess or the Lolita because our bodies read XXX, never innocence, to the white male gaze. That was actually the prevailing excuse white men used to rape and sexually harass black and brown women and girls until very recently–the “lack of ability to be defiled,” and therefore “asking for it all the time.” We’re typically portrayed as wild animals or hyper-sexual temptresses because of this insanely racist and sexist historical notion, which is why I don’t take so much pleasure out of seeing Nikki Minaj behind barbed wire and sneering like she’s going to bite me. I think she’s talented and gorgeous, so I’m not hating on her. I’m hating on the insanely racist and sexist historical notion that goes along with that image.

  7. P.S. Janelle Monae is the shit.

  8. Loca78

    nice analysis.

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